In the spotlight: Juana Inés de la Cruz

Since I first gained the use of reason my inclination toward learning has been so violent and strong that neither the scoldings of other people … nor my own reflections … have been able to stop me from following this natural impulse that God gave me. He alone must know why; and He knows too that I have begged him to take away the light of my understanding, leaving only enough for me to keep His law, for anything else is excessive in a woman, according to some people. And others say it is even harmful. 

I read this quote in Contact by Carl Sagan. It was written by Juana Inés de la Cruz in her Reply to the Bishop of Puebla in 1691. The Bishop had attacked her scholarly work as being inappropriate for a woman; while he claimed to agree with her views, he didn’t think them appropriate for her sex. Rather than writing, she should devote her life to prayer, an endeavor much more suitable for a woman.

Aargh. 17th century clergymen are just the worst.

We’d better talk about this amazing woman then:

Juana Inés de la Cruz lived in (what was then New Spain but what is now) Mexico in the 17th century and was a self-taught polyglot (my favorite type of inspirational people). She studied scientific thought and philosophy, she was a composer and a poet, all in an age long before women were allowed to do anything involving using their brain. 

If we may believe the stories, Juana started teaching herself at a young age by hiding to read her grandfather’s books. She supposedly learned how to read and write Latin at the age of three. At the age of 16 she had asked her mother’s permission to disguise herself as a man so she could study in some avant la lettre version of She’s the Man; but her mom wouldn’t let her so she had to continue to study in secret. But by then, she already knew Latin, Greek, Nahuatl, and accounting – the most important language of them all *ahem*.

In 1669, she became a Hieronymite nun so she could study in freedom – other monasteries were a lot more strict and wouldn’t allow her to pursue her passion for knowledge, philosophy, and writing. As a nun, she would write on the topics of religion, feminism, and love; often criticizing the hypocrisy of men and defending women’s right to education. In Reply to Sister Philotea, she wrote:

Oh, how much harm would be avoided in our country [if women were able to teach women in order to avoid the danger of male teachers in intimate setting with young female students.]

[Such hazards] would be eliminated if there were older women of learning, as Saint Paul desires, and instructions were passed down from one group to another, as in the case with needlework and other traditional activities.

Okay, now I’m imagining needlework maps of our universe. That’d be cool.

Unfortunately, this story has an unhappy ending. According to some sources, rather than being censored by the church, Sister Juana decided to stop writing and sell all her books, musical instruments, and scientific tools. Other sources claim that her belongings were confiscated by the bishop due to her defiance towards the church. Nevertheless, a lot of her writings have gone lost and soon later, in 1695, after caring for other nuns with the plague. 

There’s a lot of humdrum about inspirational women, in science or not, nowadays. With a lot of books with inspiring stories, such as Rachel Ignotofsky’s Woman in Science, finding empowering role models has never been easier. And I love it. Showing an as diverse possible range of inspirational historical figures provides everyone with role models than can identify with and aspire to. However, I have noticed that my knowledge of inspirational women is primarily European-based. So this is me trying to change that.  

“One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper.” – Multitasking 101


Soucre: ye old trustworthy

A Nobel Cause

So, the news is out. At least in terms of the sciency Nobel Prizes (sorry Economic Sciences, you don’t really count here), the 2018 Laureates have all been announced, so here’s a short overview of what was Nobel-Prize-Worthy this year:

1. Nobel Prize in Chemistry (press release)

And… *drumroll* the Nobel prize in Chemistry goes to Prof. Frances H. Arnold, Prof. George Smith and Sir Gregory Winter for their contributions to protein biology, where they all worked on directed evolution of proteins.

Directing protein evolution is used to create proteins with a specific function that can be used in biofuel, pharmaceutical, and medicine manufacturing. Half of the Nobel Prize was awarded to Prof. Arnold, who works on directed evolution of enzymes (proteins that are used to accelerate or direct chemical reactions). The other half, that of Prof. Smith and Sir Winter, celebrated a method called phage display. This process uses viruses to develop specific proteins that can be used for medical purposes.

My personal excitement for this prize:
Well, Prof. Arnold is a professor in bioengineering, which is, in my opinion, an underacknowledged field, so that’s pretty cool. And this has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve studied bioengineering. Nothing at all.


2. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (press release)

The Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Jim Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their work in cancer therapy. By now, the concept of “immune therapy” may not sound extremely new anymore. However, just think about how amazing it is: someone’s immune system (in other words, an attack system that is already present in your body) can be used to fight cancer cells (which isn’t really straightforward – cancer cells originate from normal cells so are not detected as “foreign” by the immune system).
My personal interest in this prize: 
First of all, yay for biology completely highjacking the Nobel Prizes. But on the topic: radiotherapy and chemotherapy are both notorious to have a huge amount of side effect. By effectively using the natural defense system of the body, immune therapy usually is a lot less taxing on a patient, which I think is a laudable goal.

3. The Nobel Prize in Physics (press release)

*Final Drum Roll, please*

The Nobel Prize in Physics is all about lasers (Did you know that LASER is an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation? Well, you do know). Arthur Ashkin was honors for his development of optical tweezers (which I will simply explain by referring you to my fabulous friend who has worked with optical tweezers herself) and the other half was awarded to Donna Strickland and Gerard Mourou for their work on laser pulses. The most known application of laser pulses is in laser eye surgery.

My personal input to this prize:
I have two thoughts, first, how has this not won a Nobel Prize yet? Actually, to be honest, I think that quite often when the Nobel Prizes, which is probably why they get a Nobel Prize in the first place. The other thought has to do with the same reason why this prize has been in the press a lot: it has been 55 years since a woman won a physics Nobel prize. Only two other women have a Nobel Prize in Physics to their name: Marie Skłodowska-Curie (obviously!) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer (go google her, now).

Some thoughts on women and Nobel Prizes

Historically, science has always been pretty male-dominated. And even now, women are underrepresented in research: worldwide the female share of persons employed in R&D is approximately 30% and I will not even get into high-level academics here.

In terms of Nobel Prizes, as of this year, there have been 49 women who have won Nobel Prizes (that’s all of them), compared to 844 men. In the sciency fields, five women have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2.8%), twelve have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (5.6%), and – as stated – three have won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1.4%). Actually, only one woman has won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (also 1.4%), but that doesn’t really count as a science anyway!

In any case, none of the Nobel Prizes have a good track record, and it makes me a bit sad that “First woman Physics Nobel winner in 55 years” is a news headline, but ah well, we may have come some part of the way but we are not there yet.

And until we are, having positive role models of all shapes and sizes and sexes for STEM fields is crucial. As a wannabe science-communicator, or science-populizer if you will, one of my aims is exactly that. So that every child can look up to a scientist and think “that could be me!”

And – even if I say so myself – I think that’s a pretty noble cause.